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"I am not what I am." — Iago
Abraham Popoola as Othello (Photo: The Other Richard)
When the audience wants to stay at the end and talk about how wonderful this production is, you know that something very special is being seen here at Wilton's Music Hall. First timers and the experienced Othello audience alike, were amazed at the clarity of Richard Twyman's production for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol and English Touring Theatre. It opens with an Islamic wedding ceremony in Arabic between a veiled Desdemona (Norah Lopez-Holden) and Othello (Abraham Popoola), a leap of faith for Desdemona, underlying the way in which the news of her marriage will be received badly by her white Christian father Brabantio (Alan Coveney).

It could be argued that the central character of this play is not Othello but Iago (Mark Lockyer) whose motives are examined as to why he so hates Othello. After all in this play, the soliloquies are Iago's. That is not to detract from Abraham Popoola's brilliant stage presence as this tall, commanding military statesman that is Othello, when we say how impressive as Iago is the casting of Mark Lockyer. As both actors play in the round, the director has ensured there is no blocking and both men move their heads often looking up to reflect before they speak, to add to their Thespian range and our belief that they are saying these words for the first time. So I am not sure if these are the best of performances or the exceptional skill of a very talented director or more likely, a combination of both.

What Mark Lockyer's acting does is to clarify Iago's reasons for wanting to see the downfall of his master. It is firstly remembered pain. Othello has preferred another, Casio (Piers Hampton), who has been promoted to Othello's second in command rather than Iago. As Iago talks about the other's advancement, he seems close to tears. Secondly, Iago suspects that his wife Emilia (Katy Stephens) may have had sexual relations with Othello. Iago's suspicion as to the supposed infidelity of his wife is based on the pain we see in his face whenever he is called upon to embrace Emilia. This is a man terrified of intimacy and we suspect he suffers from impotence. So in the first scenes, we understand Iago's plotting to bring down Othello and also Casio.

The detailed nuance of Iago's sentiments gives him a humanity we can relate to. Which of us has not felt anger at being passed over on promotion nor suffered from the pain of an assumed sexual betrayal? While his manipulation and cruelty will shock us, we know how this has come about.

The groundbreaking casting of a young, feisty and spirited Desdemona in Norah Lopez-Holden is so refreshing after the delicate and wan Desdemonas I have seen in the past. Her Desdemona is almost still a schoolgirl, who of course has been entranced by Othello's tales of "derring-do". When she sees Othello, she jumps into his arms, with excitement and he is obviously besotted with her. It makes sense when Iago suggests to Casio after the drunken brawl that Iago has engineered incriminating Casio, that the way back to Othello's trust is through Desdemona. As Othello towers over her in height and experience, we can see that although Desdemona is influential, she is also out of her depth and vulnerable when faced with a jealous Othello.

The direction is tense and exciting. The rhythmic repetition of Honest Iago and allusions to honesty will make us snort with incredulity but Mark Lockyer lights up the stage at every opportunity and when he is not onstage, we miss him. Othello's marriage celebration has a bizarre but joyful marriage dance, maybe drawn from the Greek as they are in Cyprus.

In the second half, there is a large punch bag for Othello to practise on but as the jealousy takes hold and his sanity starts to unravel so the punching bandages on his hands unwind, coming apart. Katy Stephens as an experienced and wise Emilia lists the gender imbalance of sins against wives in her speech," And have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well, else let them know. The ills we do, their ills instruct us so."

The plays nears its end with the murder of Desdemona but unlike most other of Shakespeare's villains, from Iago there is no inkling of remorse for inducing Othello's jealous rage. We are left with Othello remarkably lacking insight when he describes himself as one "who loved not wisely but too well."

Miss this Othello and it may take a whole lifetime to find one as mindful.

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Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Twyman
Starring: Mark Lockyer, Abraham Popoola, Norah Lopez-Holden, Katy Stephens
With: Ghazwan Alsafadi, Christopher Bianchi, Hayat Kamille, Brian Lonsdale, Joel Macey, Zachary Powell, John Sandeman, Kenton Thomas
Design: Georgia Lowe
Lighting Design: Matthew Graham
Choreographer: Renaud Wiser
Composer and Sound Design: Giles Thomas
Fight Director: John Sandeman
Season co-produced at Tobacco Factory Theatres for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Tour co-produced with English Touring Theatre
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7702 2789
Booking to 3rd June 2017 at Wilton's Music Hall and then in Germany at the Shakespeare Festival, Neuse Globe, Neuse.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th May 2017 performance at Wilton's Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, Whitechapel, London E1 8JB (Tube: Shadwell DLR and Overground)
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